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Jacky Sparkman wants you to know that he's not such a bad guy.

Yes, he spent five years in prison for armed robbery, and yes, he is serving six months in the Dane County Jail for violating his probation on a drug charge.

But like many of the inmates at the county's Ferris Huber Center, a jail for those with work- and school-release privileges, the 49-year-old former hospital employee and painter wants to clear up public misconceptions about "doing time in county."

"A lot of people stereotype everyone," Sparkman says, sipping on a tall French vanilla blend from the jail's gourmet coffee machine. "There are some good people here. We all make poor decisions. No one is perfect in life."

Most in for misdemeanors

There are plenty of stereotypes about inmates at the Huber center, on Rimrock Road. (The name comes from Henry Huber, the state senator who sponsored the 1913 law that allows certain offenders to work or attend school while serving sentences in a minimum-security jail.)

Some residents on Madison's South Side worry that hundreds of felons will pour onto their streets every day if the county builds a 448-bed work-release jail on Fish Hatchery Road.

But most inmates sentenced with Huber privileges are serving misdemeanor charges, usually for driving drunk multiple times, getting caught with drugs or failing to pay child support. There are also those with more serious felony charges: reckless homicide, battery of a police officer, sexual assault and child abuse -- though they are in the minority and still deemed work-release eligible by a judge.

And perhaps contrary to popular belief, only about 30 percent of the county's more than 400 work-release inmates leave to work, according to the sheriff's office.

A small percentage take classes, many get out for a few hours a week for counseling, and a dozen or so participate in regular community service activities. But the vast majority of inmates serve their time watching cable TV, playing cards, walking laps around the pod, eating snacks from the vending machines and sleeping. Lights out is 10:30 p.m.

As one inmate described the daily routine, "It's like being in kindergarten camp."

Volunteering for work

More than 65 percent of inmates enter unemployed, though many have seasonal jobs, according to jail officials.

Several don't work because their sentences are only a few weeks, making it difficult to find a job in a short time. Others can't work because they have failed drug tests.

Those who do work pay $15.34 a day for room and board, while those without a job pay nothing.

Sparkman lost his job when he was incarcerated, but he now works for the jail as a "trusty," doing laundry, making bologna sandwiches for lunch and mowing the lawn. He also spends several hours a week volunteering for organizations such as the Salvation Army, Red Cross and Second Harvest.

Inmates volunteered more than 23,000 hours last year, up from 4,000 hours in 1999 when the program started, volunteer coordinator Lynn Montgomery said. The program screens for committed volunteers, but even the most sincere admit it's an opportunity to escape the dreary jail routine.

The week before Christmas, while most other inmates went back to bed after the daily 5:15 a.m. wake-up call, chores and breakfast, Sparkman and 10 other inmates volunteered at the Toys for Tots distribution at the Alliant Center next door.

They left at 8:30 a.m. in their civilian clothes, making sure to check out with the sheriff's deputies at the front desk. There are no bars at the minimum-security jail, and the doors lock from the outside, making it easier to get out than to get in.

Once at the Alliant Center, James Frion, 29, wearing a camouflage hunting jacket and Santa hat, loaded boxes of food and garbage bags with toys for disadvantaged children into a stranger's vehicle.

"It's so hard to get a job while you're in here," said Frion, serving a six-month sentence for his fourth drunken-driving offense. "It's nice to be out instead of sitting and watching TV all day."

Treatment a problem

While some inmates are motivated to reform, many find temporary jobs or participate in alcohol or drug addiction treatment programs, only to relapse and return to jail, said inmate counselor Susan Kelly.

"I think the inmates need treatment," Kelly said, adding that sometimes the inmates participate in treatment groups just to get out of the jail for a little while. "When they get released, they don't continue to go."

Kelly would like to see more in-house treatment and group meetings because then those attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, for example, would have more motivation.

The current Huber building doesn't have space for private group meetings and counseling. That's one reason the county wants to build a work-release jail with a treatment center.

A study for the project conducted by Milwaukee-based Venture Architects found that the county has an array of treatment programs in the community, but no comprehensive way to assess inmate needs and make referrals. Also missing is a full continuum of services to help inmates make the transition back into society.

In addition to treatment services, many inmates leave for medical appointments, perhaps more than they would on the outside, Kelly said. "They'll think of anything," she said. She's even heard inmates say they get caught up on their dental work while in jail.

No-shows common

Ashley Lugrain, 22, gets out in the evening for her part-time telemarketing job, but she also has the rare opportunity to leave the jail for an hour whenever her detergent runs out.

The powdered soap the jail provides irritates her skin, and she has a doctor's permission to stop at a store, something forbidden for other inmates coming back from work.

She walks down Badger Road to the Walgreen Drug Store on Park Street, making sure not to stop or interact with anyone along the way -- one of the hard-and-fast rules of the work-release privilege. A clerk at the store signs her slip when she enters and checks out, and she needs to be back in an hour or face discipline.

Lugrain, serving a year for illegally entering a hotel room and taking money, compares jail life to boot camp.

Inmates who don't follow the rules can be reprimanded. Those who leave for work have 12 hours to return, though some do make illicit stops, be it at home or the local tavern, said Sgt. John Brogan, who oversees the Ferris Huber Center. "Once a person leaves the facility, they're essentially on their own until they return," Brogan said.

Inmates not returning on time is almost a daily occurrence, Brogan said, and monitoring is hampered by a small staff of four to five deputies per shift.

During the reporting for this story, an inmate didn't return on time from an appointment. Sheriff's deputies first called the place where the inmate was supposed to be, and then contacted local police. The inmate returned later in the day on his own, likely to face some form of punishment.

That incident highlights another concern raised by neighbors if a jail were located on Fish Hatchery Road. They worry inmates will encounter drug dealers and prostitutes on their way to and from the bus transfer point. With the prevalence of drug abuse among inmates, some have compared the proposed location to holding an AA meeting in a tavern.

Three strikes, however, and inmates can lose their release privileges.

"If you think about it," Lugrain said, "if we have the privilege for Huber, we're not bad people who will be interacting with people on the outside."

Kirk Kenyon, 39, who works a late-shift manufacturing job, objects to those who worry about a work-release jail coming into their neighborhood.

"I don't see how the facility could bother them outside these walls," Kenyon said. "It's pretty quiet. You wouldn't even know it was a jail."

Kenyon, serving six months for drunken driving, said his 9-year-old daughter is glad he moved here from the medium-security jail Downtown. She can give him a hug in the visitors area, rather than talking through a "creepy" telephone and glass pane.

That's still the biggest punishment and the reason Kenyon says he won't be back: "the hardship I've put on her." During the twice weekly one-hour visits, he lets his daughter know that he won't let her down again and to calm her fears, he tells her: "It's kind of like being sent to your room for a very long time."

If you go

What: Dane County's Public Works and Public Protection and Judiciary committees hold a public hearing on a recommendation to build a jail on Fish Hatchery Road north of the Beltline.

When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: Dane County Highway Department, 2302 Fish Hatchery Road.

More information: Dane County Board: 608-266-5758.

Who are the work-release inmates?

Jacky Sparkman

Age: 49.

Charge: Violation of probation for narcotics possession.

Sentence: Six months.

James Frion

Age: 29.

Charge: Drunken driving.

Sentence: Six months.

Ashley Lugrain

Age: 22.

Charge: Burglary.

Sentence: One year.

Kirk Kenyon

Age: 39.

Charge: Drunken driving.

Sentence: One year.

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